Sailors and fishermen around a small town in Buenos Aires are panicked by sightings of a mysterious sea-creature. However, this silvery-skinned “sea devil” proves a benevolent sort, rescuing lovely Gutiere (Anastasia Vertinskaya) from a shark attack. Far from a monster, handsome Icthyander (Vladimir Korenev) is a seafaring superman endowed with shark’s lungs by his father, Professor Salvatore (Nikolai Simonov). The reclusive genius confides in good-hearted journo Olsen (Vladlen Davydov) his plan to create a utopian community under the sea, where rich and poor will live as equals. But smitten Icthyander wanders the surface world in search of Gutiere, whose hand in marriage her fisherman father Balthazar (Anatoly Simarin) unwisely pledges to unscrupulous Don Pedro (Mikhail Kozakov).
Based on a novel by science fiction writer Alexander Beliaev, Amphibian Man is not well known in the west, but was a huge hit in Russia and remains an enduring classic. With an estimated 65.5 million ticket sales, the film made stars out of its attractive, personable young leads (Vertinskaya went on to star in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Oscar-winning War and Peace (1967)) and even its theme song “The Sea Devil” became a popular hit, sung well into the Nineties.
It remains a dreamy, fairytale romance with science fiction undertones, at times akin to Tim Burton’s fables about friendly freakish outsiders, fusing stray elements from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) to The Little Mermaid (1990). The hypnotic underwater shots of silver-suited Icthyander cavorting with marine life have led to some critical comparisons with Luc Besson’s The Big Blue (1988), although this film is at once both more accessible and more ambitious. Beliaev claimed Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as influences, evident in the debates between coolly rational Professor Salvatore (who despairs of humanity) and the more empathetic Olson (who believes mankind should be given a chance).
The film contrasts the purity of the ocean depths with the busy streets and garish neon lights of Buenos Aires, true love with marriage of convenience and weaves a reoccurring theme of well-meaning fathers inadvertently dooming their offspring to unhappiness. Typically for a Soviet era production, the good guys are all models of socialist virtue, but viewers should warm to its sincerity. After all, if The Wizard of Oz (1939) can celebrate capitalist values, why can’t Amphibian Man big up socialist ideals. Yet the film subtly acknowledges neither scientific advances nor political ideals can defy basic human needs.
Although characters do not burst into song, there are extensive musical interludes and dance sequences. Plus the glossy cinematography is straight out of an MGM movie. Professor Salvatore’s hidden lair features fine model work and impressive sci-fi sets worthy of Ken Adam, while there is offbeat camerawork (a chase shot from the escapees P.O.V.) and impressive stunts (Icthyander’s leap from building to building). The plot takes successive downbeat turns, seemingly at odds with the sunny scenery, yet retains its romantic air and layers emotion until the tragically poetic denouement.